Israeli police under fire over reported use of Pegasus spyware to hack Israelis

A smartphone shows the website of Israel's NSO Group, which developed the Pegasus spyware. PHOTO: AFP

JERUSALEM (REUTERS) - Israel's parliament will seek an explanation from police over the force's reported use of a controversial hacking tool against citizens of the country, a senior legislator said on Tuesday (Jan 18).

Without citing sources, the Calcalist financial daily said police have possessed the Pegasus spyware made by Israel's NSO Group - which is now on a US government blacklist - since 2013.

Calcalist said the police used it against targets including anti-government protest leaders, sometimes without the required court warrants.

The report added a new domestic angle to global pressure on Israel following allegations that Pegasus has been abused by some foreign client governments to spy on human rights activists, journalists and politicians.

Responding to the Calcalist report, Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai said the force had acquired third-party cyber technology, but he stopped short of confirming or denying any usage of Pegasus.

All such monitoring activity, he said in a statement, "is carried out according to law... (and) for example, in the case of covert listening, a request is filed with a court, which examines the matter".

He denied the newspaper's report that police had used spyware against, among others, leaders of so-called "Black Flag" protests last year that demanded the resignation of then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is on trial on corruption charges he denies.

On Israel's Channel 12 TV news, legislator Meirav Ben Ari said the parliamentary public security committee she chairs would convene as early as next week to question police about the Calcalist report.

"Many members of parliament have approached me today. This is a very disturbing incident, raising concerns about violation of privacy and democracy as a whole," Ben Ari said.

"The police, as they do whenever they come to my hearings, will explain."

Spyware customers

NSO said it could not confirm or deny any existing or potential customers. It said it does not operate the system once sold to its governmental customers nor is it involved in any way in the system's operation.

"NSO sells its products under licence and regulation to intelligence and law enforcement agencies to prevent terror and crime under court orders and the local laws of their countries," it said.

Last month, a group of US lawmakers asked the Treasury Department and State Department to sanction NSO and three other foreign surveillance companies they say helped authoritarian governments commit human rights abuses.

In November, Apple sued NSO, saying that it violated US laws by breaking into the software installed on iPhones.

NSO has also faced either legal action or criticism from Microsoft, Facebook parent Meta Platforms , Google parent Alphabet and Cisco Systems.

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